What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
Australian cycling fans may have been knocked by the withdrawal of Team Sky’s Richie Porte from the Giro d’Italia start list, but there’s still a lot of home talent to support when the race gets underway in Belfast this Friday.
Following his stellar Tour de France in support of victor Chris Froome last July, Tasmanian Porte was hoping to assume leadership of the British-based team for the Giro this May.
While illness and poor form have put paid to Porte’s chances of a tilt at personal glory, the 29-year-old’s absence from the second-biggest stage race of the season is not all doom and gloom for Australia.
National team Orica-GreenEDGE feature six Australians on their Giro roster, while former Tour de France winner Cadel Evans enters his season’s principal target in peak condition.
Lotto-Belisol’s Adam Hansen continues his astonishing run of Grand Tour participations, while the likes of Nathan Haas (Garmin-Sharp) and David Tanner (Belkin) should not be completely overlooked.
Let’s run through the Australian riders taking to the start in Northern Ireland and weigh up who has the best shot at personal glory on the road to Trieste.
Cadel Evans (BMC, 37)
Third last year when supposedly riding in preparation for the Tour, Evans has made the Italian race his principal target this year, and enters off the back of his impressive overall victory in the Giro del Trentino, which is to the Giro d’Italia what the Criterium du Dauphine is to the Grande Boucle.
Evans may be viewed by the recent Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Simon Gerrans as the “pinnacle” of Australian cycling, but it would take a brave man to argue that Evans’ best days are not behind him. While this year’s route is not as brutal as previous editions, Evans’ earlier withdrawal and lacklustre performance in Tirreno-Adriatico suggest we should perhaps not read too much into Trentino.
A BMC roster including three riders who supported Evans in his victorious 2011 Tour campaign, as well as riders who helped the veteran to his podium last year and his recent Trentino success, means Evans is confident of having the best team possible at his disposal. The presence of experienced climber Samuel Sanchez may prove the most significant, the Spanish all-rounder showing excellent form and a promising work ethic this spring since joining from the now-defunct Euskaltel.
Two individual time trials and the opening team time trial in Belfast will work in Evans’ favour, but I sense the five major mountain finishes may catch up with his ageing legs. Chris Horner may have won last year’s Vuelta a Espana aged 41, but the American is far more explosive than Evans ever has been in the mountains – and I wouldn’t be surprised if, come the business end of the race, BMC place their eggs in the basket marked Sanchez.
That said, Evans has a knack of proving me wrong – so although my head senses a top five (even ten) finish will be beyond the veteran Victorian, I’ll at least be generous and say a podium position is possible.
I just can’t see Evans – or anyone, for that matter – bettering Nairo Quintana over three weeks.
Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol, 32)
A stage winner in last year’s Giro, Hansen returns to Italy in a bid to complete his eighth consecutive Grand Tour. Should Hansen succeed in his quest to ride all three Grand Tours for a third season running, the Queensland native will be only the second man in history to achieve such a feat (Spaniard Marino Lejarreta did the triple four times – in 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1991).
With sprinter Andre Greipel and general classification rider Jurgen van den Broeck not included in Lotto’s nine-man squad, Hansen will once again be a free agent, as he targets another stage win for his otherwise compact palmares.
A top 10 in the recent Tour of Turkey – in which he attacked on numerous occasions in the hills – suggests Hansen’s form is strong, and while victory in the mountains may be beyond Hansen, I reckon he’ll take one of the lumpy stages in the six days that follow the race’s Grande Partenza in Ireland.
Nathan Haas (Garmin-Sharp, 25)
Queenslander Haas has been knocking on the door of a big win for the past season and you get the sense that his breakthrough is just around the corner. Sixth in Brabantse Pijl, second in the opening stage of the Criterium International, victory in the opening stage of the Herald Sun Tour and four top-10s in the Tour Down Under in January all suggest he’s heading in the right direction.
Last year the youngster was forced to withdraw from his debut Grand Tour after a hefty fall in Stage 16 of the Giro. This year, his greatest hindrance may be a lack of opportunity: Garmin have both 2012 champion Ryder Hesjedal and Ireland’s Dan Martin targeting the GC, and American veteran Tyler Farrar hoping to roll back the years and sprint to a stage win.
But both Tom-Jelte Slagter – the 2013 Tour Down Under champion – and Haas may get their chances from a break, depending on how the race pans out. Haas’ key objective will be to reach the finish in Trieste – and while a stage win may be out of reach just now, we should see his smiling face in a break or two.
David Tanner (29, Belkin)
The rangy Melburnian rides his first Giro d’Italia and only his second Grand Tour as he approaches his 30th birthday. 103rd in the Vuelta last season, Tanner will support the likes of Dutchmen Wilco Keldeman and Steven Kruijswijk.
Belkin’s relatively inexperienced team suggests Tanner may well find opportunities provided he has the legs, but given his lack of professional wins and unknown form it’s hard to see the 29-year-old making an impression on the race.
Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo, 34)
Cleared to return to the pro peloton after his ban for Clenbuterol was overturned, the Canberra cyclist could well take to the start in Belfast.
At the time of writing, Tinkoff-Saxo had yet to confirm their team for the Giro, but with Russian duo Ivan Rovny and Nikolay Trusov, and Colombian youngster Edward Beltran, among the swathes of riders caught up with visa complications, Rogers is on stand-by to make his first appearance in the Giro since 2009 (when he finished eighth).
The veteran all-rounder made his eagerly anticipated return to competitive racing in last month’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, which he didn’t finish after riding in support of Czech team-mate Roman Kreuziger.
While supporting Alberto Contador during July’s Tour de France remains the ultimate season’s goal, Rogers has not ruled out taking part in the Giro as he bids to regain race fitness. “Once you know how to swim you can always jump into the deep end,” he said last week. Rogers wouldn’t target the GC but a stage scalp would be a realistic aim – and would improve his morale no end following a testing six months on the sidelines.
The Australian team boast six home talents in their roster and look to be heading to Belfast with the intention of winning the opening 21.7-kilometre team time trial and taking the race’s first maglia rosa.
Key in this early target for the race will be two-time Australian time trial champion Luke Durbridge (23), former track star Cameron Meyer (26) and Brett Lancaster (34), a veteran of seven Giros who took a memorable victory in the opening prologue in 2005.
If the TTT is a key early goal, then the team will hope sprinter Michael Matthews (23) makes as big an impression in his debut Giro as he did in his maiden Vuelta a Espana last summer, where the Canberra speedster snared two stage wins. This year, Matthews has been in solid if unspectacular form, with a victory in the Basque Country and second place in Brabantse Pijl.
Supporting Matthews with lead-out duties will be the consistent Michell Docker (27), who was part of the successful Orica-GreenEDGE train at last year’s Vuelta. Joining Docker as a key component in Matthews’ train will be the experienced Lancaster, whose positioning and understanding of the bunch dynamic should prove invaluable.
Youngster Michael Hepburn (22) makes his Grand Tour debut and will no doubt view the race as a learning experience more than a chance to top any podiums. Victory in the individual time trial in Qatar earlier in the season underlines Hepburn’s potential in delivering the race’s first pink jersey to Orica-GreenEDGE.
Riding his fourth Giro since 2011, Meyer still has a free role within the team to hunt out wins in the lumpy stages. Second place in the ITT at Tirreno-Adriatico and fourth at the Australian national championships are Meyer’s only top-10 finishes this season, but the Melburnian will hope his attacking style and versatility can deliver him the major win that would help him take a step up in his road racing career.
Powerhouse ‘Turbo Durbo’ Durbridge will have personal aspirations in the lumpy ITT to Barolo in Stage 12, after impressing with sixth place in last year’s race against the clock in his maiden Giro.
The remainder of the Orica-GreenEDGE nine-man team is made up of the current Italian national champion Ivan Santaromita, attacking stage hunter Pieter Weening of the Netherlands, and veteran Canadian national time trial champion Svein Tuft.
Victory in the opening TTT is a real likelihood for the team that triumphed on the streets of Nice in the Tour’s TTT last July. Given the absence of numerous big-name sprinters, Matthews could well prove to be Marcel Kittel’s biggest foe in the bunch sprints, while I expect Meyer to be involved in a number of breaks as he searches for his first road stage win since that memorable solo triumph in the 2011 Tour Down Under.